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Historian and ‘Burn it all Down’ Podcast host Amira Rose Davis explores the power of women athletes to change society

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EIGHT BY EIGHT MAGAZINE REPORTER Are you excited about going to the White House?

MEGAN RAPINOE, USWNT CO-CAPTAIN [scoffs] I’m not going to the fucking White House. No.

MARC STEINER “I’m not going to the White House.” Welcome. I’m Marc Steiner. [laughs] Welcome to The Real News Network. Good to have you all with us. The women of the US Soccer Team not only won the World Championship, but demonstrated the best values of what it means to be an American. The values of who we are as a people are often played out in the world of sports— from Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali, to John Carlos and Tommie Smith, and many others. And now, the women athletes are in the forefront of that struggle for a just America. The US Women’s Soccer Team pushed for pay equity, social justice, gender equality, and LGBTQ rights, and refused to go to the White House but will instead— at least some of them— meet with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The heart of what it means to be an American is being played out between the playing fields of the Women’s World Cup of Soccer in France, and the syrupy sarcastic tweets and authoritarian policies of the Trump White House. It’s a powerful and important moment in sports, and for what it means for all of us to be an American and what our future might and could be. It is not by accident that women are leading the way. We are joined, to walk all through this, with Amira Rose Davis. Dr. Davis is Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at Penn State, and has a forthcoming book, Can’t Eat a Medal: The Lives and Labors of Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow, and part of a team of five women who created the weekly podcast, “Burn It All Down”— a sports podcast, and I love the title of that podcast. And, Amira, welcome. Good to have you with us.

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER So this whole thing between Trump and the women’s team— Rapinoe at the lead of all that obviously. I mean, it’s just taken on a life of its own that was actually unexpected. I mean, not unexpected in that he would start writing tweets just because somebody said they’re not coming into the White House, but talk a little bit of your larger perspective of what the importance of this is and what it means about—What are we witnessing here?

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS Right. [laughs] Yeah and it’s unexpected because this comment that has gone viral, Meghan actually made months ago for a documentary. And, you know, the president doesn’t like being insulted, so it’s easy bait. But if you look at his initial response to her, many of us kind of feel that he thought she was black because—


AMIRA ROSE DAVIS He immediately responded to her, and he started quoting his false statistics about black unemployment.


AMIRA ROSE DAVIS His very—Let’s say, the playbook he uses to deal with black male athletes before that he had beef with on the Twitter sphere. And so, he tried to use the same playbook with Megan, and it backfired. One, because Megan Rapinoe is a badass, if I may say so myself, and she knows how to handle the situation in which she basically reaffirmed her comments. She said listen, I’m not going because I’m not going to support an administration that doesn’t fight for the same things me or my teammates fight for. And the things that Megan Rapinoe fights for are vast. So you’ve heard of equal pay, and of course we can talk about the lawsuit, but I also want to draw attention to the fact that she was the first prominent white athlete to kneel in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and she never centers herself in that. If she responds to comments about it, she says, look, I know what it feels like to play for a flag that you feel doesn’t always represent all your full liberties, but to deeply want the country to improve, and I don’t know what it means to watch my friends and family be overpoliced and gunned down in the street, but I can do my part as an ally.

So that’s who Megan Rapinoe is, and many of the participants of the Women’s National Team. And they have this swagger about them that basically says, I dare you to doubt us. And they’ve been able to bring their politics in line with their playbook on and off the pitch, and absolutely just stick to their values and dominate. I think, even though I wasn’t expecting her to get into a war with Trump, it’s not actually a surprise because Rapinoe is very much somebody who is the one who will not back down from statements like that.

MARC STEINER But before I talk about her girlfriend, I want to read something that she wrote in this piece because I think it is important before we get to the heart of pay equity and some other issues. But it also seems as if and probably that many of the women on the team actually support what she did, and gather around her in this. This is not just some lone woman on a soccer team saying, I dislike Trump, I don’t like where America is going, I believe in a different kind of place. There seems to be a unity among many of the players on the team around this particular issue and what she did.

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS There are several people who not only support Megan on her statements around this administration, but have been in their own way doing advocacy around racial justice, around pay equity, around clear visibility. And so, I think this is a particular team that has really put that tape on their back and said, yeah, you’re not going to be able to divorce our politics from our play because we embody all of that in the inherently political nature of athletics.

MARC STEINER I want to come back to that point, because I think what you’re raising is really important, and kind of talk about what this means in a broader sense of why women are leading it. But I’ve just got to share this one quote and this comment that was made by her girlfriend, and we’ll show it on the screen. We’ll show it to you all and I’ll read it to you as well. And it is from Sue Bird, the great WNBA player who’s her other half. And she said, “O.K. So now that that’s out of the way, I’ll answer The Question. The one that’s probably most on your mind. And by that, I mean: What’s it like to have a literal President of the literal United States (of literal America) go Full Adolescent Boy on your girlfriend? Hmm. Well….. it’s WEIRD. And I’d say I actually had a pretty standard reaction to it: which was to freak out a little.” [AMIRA laughs] And so, I mean, so—It seems to be, she’s emblematic in some ways not just because she’s her girlfriend, but of women in sports in general. And it seems to me that there’s something new happening here— a forefront of the struggle, kind of, seen through the eyes of women and through the struggles of women, white and black and others as well, in the world of sports, and what this might portend for the future.

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS Yeah. Well, I’ll have to push back a little because it’s actually not new. Yeah women have been—

MARC STEINER Please do. Pardon? Say again?

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS I said that’s actually not new. Women have been using the platform of sport to speak about societal issues for a very long time. They just generally don’t receive the same coverage, accolades, or even the historical treatment. So work that I do—My colleague, Brenda Elsey and Joshua Nadel just wrote a book, Futbolera, which talked about the history of organizing for soccer in Latin America. And you can go back as far as the early 20s to see women mobilizing together to push for equality both in sports, but also generally harness that for political or equal rights gained at large. You have women like Rose Robinson, a black woman who I write about who refused to be a Goodwill Ambassador to be used by the State Department during the Cold War as propaganda. And you have women like Wyomia Tyus, who was at the 68′ Olympics, who also protested in her own way and it received the coverage that Tommie and John did, but also dedicated her medal in support of them as well.

And of course, you have WNBA players who are on the forefront of not only taking a knee, but even before Colin Kaepernick staged his protest, these women were having blackouts— refusing to answer media questions at their games unless they dealt with police brutality, wearing “I can’t breathe” shirts. So I think women have definitely had the platform and been on the forefront of athletic activism, and I think this particular team really takes that to the next level. And part of that, to be clear, is because it’s an overwhelmingly white team. And when they’re engaging in political action, it’s serving it, I think, in a little bit more of a palatable way. The black women who have been leading these protests in other arenas like track and basketball, don’t necessarily have that same platform in which to galvanize an entire country behind.

So that’s part of it too, but certainly, I think that what you see is a moment particularly in women’s football where women all over the world are pushing back at their own federation as well as FIFA and saying they deserve better. And they’re parlaying that outside of the pitch to say, we not only deserve better in the game, but we deserve better treatment as women in our respective countries. So the US Women’s National Team using a lawsuit, entering a lawsuit about gender discrimination of the US Federation— but that is only one of a myriad of protests that we’ve seen from women. So we’ve even seen women like Ada Hegerberg, who is from Norway, actually refuse to play in the World Cup because she doesn’t like the treatment of the women’s game by her federation in Norway. She’s currently the world’s best player. You’ve had women in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, stage very public social media protests. The women in Jamaica, most notably, leveraged their platform to get backpay. They hadn’t been paid for six months and their coach was volunteering. They’re mostly bankrolled by Bob Marley’s daughter, Cedella Marley—

MARC STEINER Oh. I read about. Right, right.

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS And so, what the US women are doing and how they’re challenging their federation and how they’re challenging global soccer, is really being mirrored in other organizations and federations with even less resource allocation and infrastructure. And I think that that’s a really important piece of it because what you’re seeing is a galvanization of the women’s game worldwide, but also— and I really would encourage everybody to look up Brenda Elsey’s work on this— women have been using that motivation to actually embrace a kind of feminist politics outside and that goes beyond the pitch. So for women who are engaged in labor struggles around say, maternity leave and athletics, that has ties to the way that people are struggling in general as working women and fighting for maternity rights and maternity leave. And so, there’s a lot of opportunities here to leverage what’s happening in athletics, seemingly entertainment, into political struggle and activism.

MARC STEINER So this is one of the reasons I love historians so much. They can pull us up when we say things and say, wait a minute. You’re missing this and plus, here’s all the rest, which this is really important. I think that. [laughs] And I think because partially in what you’re describing, it’s obviously because women are never taken as seriously as men when they say something. And B— black women and women of color, even less so when they say something. It’s like, let’s ignore it. It’s not that important. So I mean, and I think that you raise some issues and talk about people and instances, I think, that most of us are not aware of, don’t pay attention to. Even those of us who try to pay attention to everything, we’re not paying attention. So I think that—

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS Certainly, and I think you’ve identified a lot of the reason why that has gone under the radar before. And I think to return to the Women’s National Team, they have the viewership, right? They have the eyes on them. They have the platform. We care about women’s soccer, seemingly once every four years when they’re in the World Cup. And we’ve had this discussion since 99′, right? The 99ers were the team that was supposed to change everything for women’s sports. And to be fair, it inspired millions of little girls— myself included and members of this team— to really invest in soccer in particular in this country.

But we have this discussion every year and so what this team in particular did, and people on the 2015 winning team as well said, you know what? We’re going to leverage this moment in the sun. We’re going to leverage the moment that we know that people actually give a damn about women in sports. So that pressure that they put on their back with the lawsuit was a calculated pressure, knowing that they would be able to capture this moment where people actually cared about women’s soccer and use it to create the platform on which to be heard for issues that they’ve been talking about for years. And that’s exactly what they did. You heard when they were getting their trophy, the chants of equal pay ringing out throughout the stadium. And I think that’s a testament to not only their tenacity, but because of their brilliant strategy really.

MARC STEINER [laughs] I just—And I love her presence. She’s a trip, and especially the Trump tweet where he said, Megan, you haven’t won, just win. And she just doubled back in his face after that tweet and won. I mean, the team won, which I thought was beautiful. But let’s go to one of the issues that also kind of sparked some of this recognition, which had to do with pay equity. And this is a very short clip of that, that took place spontaneously in the stands as they were playing.

FIFA WOMEN’S WORLD CUP 2019 FINAL AUDIENCE Equal Pay! Equal Pay! Equal Pay! Equal Pay! Equal Pay! Equal Pay! Equal Pay! Equal Pay! Equal Pay! Equal Pay! Equal Pay! Equal Pay! Equal Pay! Equal Pay!

MARC STEINER So I mean, they started—We can talk about this. How they started this lawsuit, but it’s kind of galvanized people. I mean, it’s like saying, you know, “Equality Now!” and it’s pushed things ahead in ways that have not been pushed before— emotionally, viscerally.

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS Yeah, certainly. And I think that we should point to the fact that labor victories, some of the biggest ones in the recent years have come in the arena of women’s sports. Women’s National hockey players went on strike before getting pay. And the issues that they’re talking about are certainly pay equity. You heard the chant. They’re paid less than the men, by far. They’re paid less in a win than the men get in a loss. When the women lose, they don’t earn money. They get less in terms of a per diem to eat. And so, part of pay equity actually encompasses many things— resource allocation, travel, compensation, and it also speaks to things like how much their coach is getting paid. Jill Ellis, who just won the World Cup, in the last accounting of the book, got paid not only less than the men’s coach, but by the men’s U-20 and U-23 Cup. Those are development coaches. That’s a development—

MARC STEINER That’s crazy.

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS So think about what that means too. So that’s part of equal pay. That’s, you know, one of the things that their lawsuit alleges, is that they are doing the same service to the Federation. You can see their viewership numbers. You can see their revenue. You can’t even get a jersey right now because they’re sold out, and also the Federation doesn’t invest enough in getting widespread other—

MARC STEINER I know. I found out. I tried to buy them for my daughters and myself, and they’re gone.

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS You can’t do it. And if you’re trying to do it in a men’s size— good luck, [MARC laughs] because they don’t think men buy women’s jerseys, so—And that’s part of this though. That is part of it. They’re saying, pay us more, yes. Have, you know, good policies about maternity, yes. But also, just respect us. Add our, you know, investment into the game in general. And so, I think that their lawsuit is wide-ranging and reaching and it points to a general lack of respect on the part of the US Soccer Federation. And I think that that is something that is very worthy of the platform and the press that they’re getting right now.

MARC STEINER Yeah and as we kind of wind this down, there’s something that really was interesting and spontaneous and the political ramifications of this to me are really interesting as well as what’s going to change in sports. And when Fox 40, the Fox News who sees itself as the soccer station, tried to broadcast—[laughs] They got away from the stadium to get away from the politics and tried to broadcast in this bar where they felt there were a lot of great American drunken patrons who would love seeing them. This is what occurred.

GREG PALKOT, FOX NEWS We are here at a sports bar in Lyon, France—

LYON, FRANCE BAR PATRONS Fuck Trump! Fuck Trump! Fuck Trump! Fuck Trump! Fuck Trump! Fuck Trump!

GREG PALKOT, FOX NEWS [chanting continues] Here. Listen to it. We are in a sports bar. We were going to be outside. We were going to be looking at a screen of—


AMIRA ROSE DAVIS It’s perfect.

MARC STEINER I guess it’s not professional for me to laugh, but I couldn’t help myself. It was, I mean—

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS It is. It’s hilarious. And I think you point to it. That not only did they get this platform, but he really miscalculated trying to go toe-to-toe with Megan Rapinoe because it’s galvanized more people.

MARC STEINER He thought it was safe with a bar full of wealthy white people who went to France. [laughs]

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS Right. [laughs] Exactly. So it galvanized, you know, all these people against them. And even Rapinoe today said, listen, he told me to finish the job. I’ve held up my end of the bargain, and so—And for those people who support him and decided to hate the team because they think that that’s the way to support him, they’re running around saying “nobody cares, nobody cares.” Well, viewership numbers would disagree with that.

MARC STEINER Way up. Way up.

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS So seeing as there’s a 20% increase from this year’s Women’s World Cup Final, compared to last year’s Men’s World Cup Final viewership numbers in the United States—So people are watching. And as you can see from the cheers or the chants, whether it’s here or in France, people are behind these women.

MARC STEINER Well, Dr. Amira Rose Davis, it’s really been a pleasure to meet you and talk with you and have you here on The Real News with us. I look forward to having you here a great deal more and continue our conversation. This is an amazing moment, and I think that we’re going to see just how sports intersect with our political life and our social and cultural life in this country. Where it takes us, I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the future. Thank you so much for joining us.

AMIRA ROSE DAVIS Yeah. I was happy to stop by.

MARC STEINER It’s been a pleasure. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Pleasure to have you all watching. Thanks for joining us. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.